United States, an eight-hour orchestral and multimedia performance piece by the artist Laurie Anderson, was first performed in its entirety over two nights at Brooklyn Academy Of Music, in the February of 1983. It was an examination of the American Utopia, a collage of spoken word, technology, music and film, divided into four sections: transportation, politics, money and love, and 78 separately titled segments. There were shadow puppets, a miniature speaker she placed in her mouth, a drum solo performed on her own skull; the Statue Of Liberty and the Stars And Stripes.
The show that February was not entirely new material. For some while, Anderson had been performing segments of United States at smaller venues, including at the Nova Convention, held in New York City in 1978, where the audience had included William S Burroughs, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and Frank Zappa.
Anderson had also distilled and studio-recorded several sections of the work for her 1982 album Big Science, released in haste after the unexpected success of her 1981 single “O Superman”, which reached No 2 in the UK charts (having been championed by John Peel) and led to a seven-album deal with Warner Brothers.
If Anderson seemed to land at that moment out of nowhere, it’s worth remembering that in 1979 the New York Times called her “the best and most popular performance artist of her age”. That she was already the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Above all, that the 10 songs of Big Science (including the bonus B-side “Walk The Dog”) are intricately linked to an artistic movement and an era, to the time of the Iran hostage crisis, the emergence of Reaganism, the burgeoning technological age. That Anderson was more, much more, than just a novelty hit or a quirk.
But it’s also worth considering how readily Big Science stands alone, untethered from time and place. And how, over the course of its near-40-year existence, it has been a record that has come to acquire new resonance with each generation, now standing as one of the most influential albums of the past four decades – its effect tangible in recent work by the likes of Cassandra Jenkins, St Vincent, Perfume Genius and more.
Still suffering the effects of the 9/11 attacks, listeners duly pointed to the record’s eerie prescience, to its talk of buildings on fire, the tale of a pilotless aeroplane crash-landing in its opening track, “From The Air”, and “O Superman”’s calm advisory: “Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Made in America…” Beneath Anderson’s mellifluously disembodied voice, a saxophone jabbed and juddered. Listening again, it was hard not to recall a description from the New York Times review of the United States performance, painting Anderson as “a mad empress overlooking a radioactive cityscape, her music evoking the whines of sirens and the sobs of the people”.
And it seemed right to remember in that moment that “O Superman”’s full title included the tribute “For Massenet” – a thank you to the French composer whose 1885 opera Le Cid included the aria “O Souverain”, which inspired Anderson’s song, and which served as something of a prayer to a higher power.
This latest reissue comes at a time of new crisis, when science has never seemed bigger or more urgent, and the American Utopia more tarnished. Today, in an age of near-Trump, and civil rights uprisings, and riots at the US Capitol, the lyrics to “O Superman”, that oddity of sublimely vocodered voice and electronic tenderness, have acquired new weight: “’Cause when love is gone there’s always justice”, Anderson notes. “And when justice is gone, there’s always force”.
This year, Big Science’s emotional heart seems to lie towards the close of the record, in the sweet medley of “Let X=X” and “It Tango”. In the first, warm synths and xylophone carry Anderson’s jumbled world of hat check guys and burning buildings, sky-blue skies and Swiss Army knives, of writing a book “thick enough to stun an ox”. In the latter, there is brass, electronic huffs and handclaps, hiccoughs of Dylan lyrics, trails of associated meaning, a song that bobs and weaves and pushes forward. Together, they suit these strange days of disorientation, false starts and momentum.
Anderson’s early studies were in violin and sculpture, and often her artworks have combined sound and temporary structure – Automotive, for instance, which conducted car horns at a drive-in bandshell in Rochester, Vermont, or Duets On Ice, in which she wore ice skates to stand atop blocks of ice and perform cowboy songs on a “self-playing violin” until the blocks of ice melted.
To listen to the songs of Big Science is to feel something of this state of perpetual transience, as if it is not quite the same album you listened to 10 years ago, nor even this morning. This is testament to both its sense of free-floating disembodiment and its sheer variation of sound – the steady drip of “Walking And Falling”; the bagpiped punkish discomfort of “Sweaters”; the joyously unexpected twists and turns of “Example #22”, in which snippets of German, a telephone, a saxophone, a sultry chorus, a pitter-pattering drumline, synths and vocal distortion gather and gather, growing ever more frenzied and zig-zagged. It is also a tribute to Anderson’s manipulation of language – a phrase that might seem harmless one moment, can easily glower the next. So the lyrics of, say, “Born, Never Asked”, about a room full of people all arriving at the same time, all free, and all wondering what’s behind the curtain, quickly feels like a curdled portrait of America.
Despite the juggernauting eight minutes of “O Superman”, this is a strikingly short album, made up of mostly short songs. And yet Big Science carries the sense that what you are listening to holds great breadth and depth. As if it contains not only 9 songs, and one chart hit, but something more profound: ideas of America, thoughts on transportation, politics, money and love. As if, should you listen hard enough, you might just hear 78 separately named segments, shadow puppets, and the Stars And Stripes; all the richness and wonder of an eight-hour performance spread out over 44 minutes.